Qantas turns to big data and IoT to cut energy burn
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Qantas turns to big data and IoT to cut energy burn

Clare Simmons — February 2015
How the Australian airline is leveraging cutting-edge technology to hit environmental efficiency targets.

Australia’s largest domestic and international airline, Qantas, is using cutting-edge technologies — from big data to the Internet of Things — to support its goals for energy savings, greenhouse gas reduction and resource conservation. To explore these challenges I-CIO sat down with Qantas’s group environment manager Justin Merrell and Alison Rowe, global executive director sustainability at Fujitsu, which has been the airline’s close partner on meeting its environmental objectives since 2009.
Big data, big impact

I-CIO: The nature of the industry means that airlines have been generating a vast amount of data for decades. But how do new methods of manipulating such data play into Qantas’s sustainability efforts?

Justin Merrell: Big data is highly relevant to aircraft performance. Sensor technology is now very cheap, so when people are designing aircraft — engines in particular — they don’t hesitate to add sensors. These supply continuous data, generating large pools of information that must then be mined in order to understand how efficiently an aircraft is performing.

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And it’s not just about the aircraft, it’s also about air traffic management. There are major opportunities in finding the shortest routes to improve fuel efficiency. So big data will also have an impact on flight planning. With access to the right weather information, for instance, you can identify the shortest route and optimize that to minimize fuel consumption.

The other factor [with today’s sensors] is that access to the data is instantaneous. With some of the older aircraft flight data would have to be delivered manually, on magnetic tapes, and then sent away for analysis. Now that we have instant access to this information we can adapt to it immediately.
Measuring success

I-CIO: While jet fuel combustion accounts for around 98% of Qantas’s 11.7 million tonne annual carbon footprint, the company did manage to reduce that by 7% in 2013/2014. Is that the core metric it uses for sustainability achievements?

JM: We try to keep our metrics as basic as possible — we find measurements that are too fancy just become a distraction. There are lots of ways in which to represent fuel efficiency data, but we stick to the industry standard: litres per revenue multiplied by kilometres. Similarly energy is measured in kilowatts, waste in landfill tons and water in kilolitres. In addition to this, we have some metrics around staff engagement, such as the number of people signed up to our Green Team (now 700+) and sustainability-related activity on our Yammer corporate social media tool.

But we try not to put too much emphasis on metrics at Qantas — they’re simply tools that guide us. In terms of target setting we have a very open dialog with Fujitsu, which uses its strong understanding of our business to identify and introduce potential new opportunities to us.
Role of technology

I-CIO: Fujitsu is helping customers such as Qantas work towards sustainability best practice. What role should IT now be playing in achieving these goals?

Alison Rowe: Many of our customers still have old equipment and need our help understanding when to make the switch by comparing operational cost to capital expenditure. So we still look at the total cost of ownership, but the focus is starting to shift towards how IT shapes the rest of the business. We’re getting to a point where IT is, in itself, pretty efficient — the next big challenge is how that capability is utilized across the organization.
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I hope that in a year’s time we’re talking more about climate adaptation solutions that use IT, or IT’s role in a smart city network — about the sustainability enablement side of technology — rather than the inherent use of IT. The IT and airline industries have been about equal when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions globally, but there’s a significant opportunity in using IT to reduce emissions outside of the IT industry and department — that’s the really exciting part, and that’s our focus.
Broad industry reach

I-CIO: Which other industries are leading the way in tackling sustainability challenges and how are they using technology to achieve this?

AR: Big data and IoT are having an impact on sustainability efforts everywhere. If we can understand data patterns we can access different efficiency scenarios — when we understand the information we’re receiving, we can adapt.

Universities typically have a large footprint and large amounts of data, so their sustainability requirement and role for the future are significant. Plus the average university student, aged 18 to 24, has some significant demands around environmental responsibility. We’re currently working on climate change modelling with the Australian National University, for instance, using supercomputing and data to identify impact and adapt accordingly.

Electricity grids are often built based on these kinds of data, looking at peak and off-peak demand, but there are now real opportunities in using big data and IoT to generate efficiencies industry-wide. These technologies are also creating opportunities around wellbeing and human factors — such as tying wearables to human behavior and weather to study the impact climate has on health. On that scale the findings could be used to drive new business models and plan process re-engineering for the future.

Financial services are also focusing on using ICT to drive sustainability. These companies typically handle large volumes of transaction data, with IT accounting for about 60% of the energy bill. This is the driving force, but it must be balanced with the security and privacy issues that face that industry.

Meanwhile, retail is becoming increasingly reliant on technology and consumers are expecting a different experience. We’re working with some big customers such as Swedish retailer H&M on sustainable measures that utilize IT. Additionally, there is now growing demand for green IT within developing countries – these micro markets have leapfrogged more developed countries because there’s no incumbent infrastructure to overcome.
Business engagement

I-CIO: The airline industry is estimated to contribute 2% of annual global emissions. Qantas has been transparent about its responsibilities to the environment and the challenges presented by climate change. How are sustainability objectives set and integrated into Qantas’s overall business strategy?

JM: There’s a small fuel and environment management team at Qantas that sits within the office of the CEO. This senior position affords us lots of opportunities and clout, but the business is also at a point now where it’s more than ready to have those conversations.

Rather than going into a meeting and talking about greener solutions, we talk in terms of identifying strategic opportunities for the business — whether that’s to receive government funding or make cost savings by using new equipment. This approach gets much more attention and drives sustainability throughout the organization. And Fujitsu helps us identify which opportunities we should present to the executives at Qantas, whether that's to our CIO or elsewhere in the business.

AR: Our customer is often the CIO, but they have many competing priorities and getting sustainability on that list can be challenging. So we’re taking a broader approach, talking to stakeholders across the organization. With Qantas, this means talking to the environment and IT teams, enabling them to formulate common objectives and using this synergy to propel the business case forward.
Consumer conscience

I-CIO: Consumers are increasingly aware of their environmental impact and are more selective about buying from companies that align with their concerns. How do you communicate Qantas’s sustainability story to passengers?

JM: The key question for us has always been how we deliver the most value to the airline, as well as the environment. With Fujitsu’s help we were already identifying energy saving and fuel–efficiency opportunities, but we wanted to make this more outward-facing to promote sustainability publicly. So around 14 months ago we created Longreach, our sustainability story for passengers and customers. It allows us to provide opportunities for individuals and the corporate market to contribute to sustainable outcomes.

At the moment this story is mainly around carbon offsetting. But it’s not just about removing CO2 from the atmosphere — the type of projects we invest in can promote positive social outcomes, too. For example, we distribute cooking stoves in Cambodia, we’re looking at a savanna-burning project up in Australia’s Northern Territory to benefit the indigenous community, we’re running a deforestation avoidance project up in New Guinea and we’ve just kicked off a conservation project in New Zealand to support our Jetstar carrier. We have the luxury of being able to pick and choose the projects we invest in and in turn, allow individual and corporate customers to choose the project they feel most strongly about. So it’s far greater than a receipt that simply thanks you for offsetting your carbon.

• Alison Rowe discusses how to make a business case for sustainability.
First published February 2015
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